David Brandt-Erichsen

This 1988 portrait by space artist Mark Maxwell depicted Alcor member David Brandt-Erichsen doing what he would love to do in the future.

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics January-February 2018

By Nicole Weinstock

More Alcor Member Profiles

You might think a person born with a passionate interest in space and the future would be a natural for cryonics. However, if that person was also born a skeptic it might take a while to come around to the idea.

Such was the case with David Brandt-Erichsen, now age 70, who spends much of his time maintaining five websites. The story of these websites, combined with the story of two books that had the greatest impact on his view of the future, can be used to tell his story.

Website: alcor.org

David has been an Alcor member for 30 years. Not one to just join an organization, David wanted to volunteer to help out. In the early 1990s he served as a Sign-Up Coordinator helping people fill out their Alcor paperwork, and since 1998 has served as a Trustee of the Alcor Patient Care Trust.

When the Alcor Website Working Group was created in 2003, consisting of volunteers who provide in-house control over the website update process, David was a part of that group and remains so today as the primary person who updates the web pages. Probably more than 90% of the words on the Alcor website were placed there by him. Though not a web designer (much of the design work was hired out), he spent hundreds of hours scanning, copy editing, formatting, and uploading material for the very extensive library of cryonics information on the site.

David mans an Alcor table during Space Week at a mall in Tucson in the early 1990s.

David first heard about cryonics in the 1970s when he was working in the field of molecular biology. “Being intimately familiar with the complexities of living systems, I dismissed the idea because I could not see any possible way to get around the problem of freezing damage.” So what changed his mind?

David displays results of an experiment while working as a research assistant in molecular genetics at Oregon State University.

Book: Engines of Creation

Before this book came out, David had known its author Eric Drexler for some time because they were both on the Board of Directors of the L5 Society (see below). “Eric had a reputation for always being correct on technical matters, and I kept hearing through the L5 grapevine that he was working on some ideas about molecular machines, but I was very skeptical because I could not imagine how such things could be built.” After much delay, the book finally came out in 1986 and David was first on his block to get a copy because he wanted to find out just what the fuss was all about.

“In the very first chapter it hit me: Living systems are proof nanotechnology works. We ARE nanomachines, therefore nanomachines are possible.”

That was it for David. The concept of nanorepair machines provided a credible solution to the problem of freezing damage. He was going to sign up for cryonics.

Book: Colonies in Space

In 1977, David ran across this book by T. A. Heppenheimer in a bookstore and it immediately grabbed his attention. He had always been interested in space to the point of feeling that he was born too early. “When I was seven years old, I was glued to our little 10-inch black-and-white TV when Walt Disney’s Man in Space series came on. It was based on Wernher von Braun’s vision of moving into space, and its image of the first trip to Mars with not one but a flotilla of spaceships is indelibly burned into my brain to this day. At age nine, I was so enthralled by the movie Forbidden Planet that it remains my favorite movie of all time. During the first Moon landing I thought that the calendar should be reset to year zero on July 20, 1969. I still think that.”

But David assumed that a book on colonies in space would only consist of speculation about hundreds of years in the future, so the large $8 price tag stopped him. A year later it was offered for $1 from a book club, so he got a copy, which then sat on the shelf for another year. One day he picked it up for no particular reason and started reading. “The first chapter was generic stuff about man’s place in the universe—nothing new.” Then he read Chapter Two.

“I was thunderstruck! This was not a book of speculation about the distant future. It was nothing less than a detailed blueprint for moving human civilization into space, beginning immediately and using current (1970s) technology.” The ideas were based on the work of Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill (see David’s accompanying article).

“I immediately knew that I wanted to get involved with this, to somehow help make it happen, even to make it my life’s work. But how?” David had no engineering skills, nor really any skills that he thought he could bring to bear on this. There was a footnote in the book about an organization that had been formed to promote these ideas, the L5 Society, so he started by joining that.

Not one to just join an organization, David wanted to volunteer to help out. He started a chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area where he lived at the time. He developed a slide show and gave talks to schools and civic groups. When he took a research job at Oregon State University, he started a chapter there and got the university to invite speakers on the subject. When he got the chance, he moved to Tucson where the L5 Society was headquartered. He worked his way up the ranks of the organization and has served as an officer or board member for more than 25 of the 38 years he has been a member.

David with Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh during the signing of a Space Week proclamation in the early 1980s.

David has a plaque on his wall “for outstanding contributions to the political effort of the L5 Society on behalf of America’s space station program, and for the important role this played in obtaining full funding for the initial year of the program.” The wording was based on an actual statement from NASA acknowledging the effort.

In the late ’80s the L5 Society merged with an organization started by Wernher von Braun, becoming the National Space Society. It moved to Washington DC, but David has remained in Tucson to this day.

Website: space.nss.org

In addition to being on the Board of Directors, David is a member of the volunteer website team for the National Space Society (NSS), serving as a primary maintainer of that site. As with the Alcor site, he spent hundreds of hours creating a large library of information about space settlement and space solar power for the NSS site. “One item I am particularly gratified about is that I contacted Mr. Heppenheimer and got permission to put online the entire book Colonies in Space. My hope is that the material on this site may someday inspire the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, but even if that happens I’ll probably never know.”

Website: naturalarches.org

For about two decades David has been the webmaster for the Natural Arch and Bridge Society (NABS), which he refers to as “a small organization that has a large amount of fun.”

David had always loved Utah’s canyon country and gradually developed a focus on natural arches. He was also a hiking guide for the Southern Arizona Hiking Club, and in 1991 he led a group of Tucson hikers for a week in the Moab area where they visited 65 arches, and he never had more fun in his life. So when he ran across a NABS brochure in the Moab Visitor Center, he joined right up.

David’s favorite natural arch is Spiderweb Arch in Arizona, which is very remote and seen by few.

Not one to just join an organization, David wanted to volunteer to help out. He organized several NABS outings, edited their newsletter for seven years, and even played a role in confirming the longest natural arch in the world: 400-foot Fairy Bridge in China. David has visited more than 600 natural arches. “Looking for arches always takes you to beautiful places you might never have thought to go to otherwise. An arch as a goal at the end of a hike is the frosting on a very good cake.”

Looking for arches brings David to many beautiful and seldom-seen places. He took this photo in a very remote part of Canyonlands National Park (before regulations prohibited walking on arches in the park).

In 1989 he led a week-long Hiking Club trip to Glacier National Park. “One of the hikers,” David says with a smile, “was a cute Filipino girl who worked as an ICU nurse in Tucson.” They got to know each other during the week while tired and dirty, rather than in a typical dating situation (where people are always on their best behavior!). They immediately started dating upon returning to Tucson, and later married. For the wedding, David choreographed a planetarium show which 150 people attended. “Slides from our hiking trips were projected on the dome, and then a star show took the audience to the Moon. We were married in the middle of a moonscape, followed by a recessional with a laser light show. The planetarium had a killer sound system, and the whole thing was accompanied by a custom music mix designed to produce goose bumps. It must have worked because several people commented it was the best wedding they had ever seen.” David and his wife are celebrating their 27th anniversary this year.

David and his wife’s wedding invitations showed the couple in Antelope Canyon, Arizona (the northern section that requires ropes to get through).

Website: choicesarizona.org

David is webmaster of this site dedicated to changing Arizona law to recognize medical aid in dying as a fundamental civil right.

“Freedom-fighting is in my genes” said David, who is a direct descendant of famed abolitionist and women’s rights leader Lucretia Mott, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol building and whose face is destined to appear on the ten dollar bill in 2020 for the centennial of women earning the right to vote. “So it was intuitively obvious for me to seek to establish the one major right we don’t have in this country: the right to control the circumstances of our own death. This is of course particularly important for cryonicists, who want a standby team on the scene at the time.”

Famed abolitionist and women’s rights leader Lucretia Mott was David’s great, great, great grandmother; this picture was handed down to him through the family.

So David joined the Hemlock Society (now Compassion & Choices), the oldest and largest “right-to-die” organization. He is a life member who does not want his membership to expire any time soon. Not one to just join an organization, David wanted to volunteer to help out. For 15 years he was on the board of either the Tucson Chapter or the Arizona statewide organization (the state organization has since disbanded). He is no longer active other than maintaining the fairly static website because “the chances of changing the law in Arizona are about the same as a snowball’s chance on a Phoenix sidewalk in June.”

Several states now have “death with dignity” laws that allow a terminally ill person to get a prescription for a lethal medication that they can take themselves, so it’s just a matter of time before Alcor has a member who wants to take their perfectly legal lethal prescription with an Alcor team standing by.

“This would be great for the member, but there could also be potential for political backlash worse than the crisis we had in 2004 when the Arizona legislature threatened to place Alcor under regulation by the Funeral and Embalmer’s Board. I worry about such possibilities.” Unfortunately these laws are of no help in a number of cases, particularly Alzheimer’s. “Of the really bad things that can happen to a cryonicist, Alzheimer’s is statistically the most likely by far. For years I have been trying to come up with a plan for what I could do if I were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Suicide is out because it results in autopsy, and suicide also cannot be done with a standby team present without implicating them.”

The only plan he could come up with is voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED). “It is legal,” says David, “but it takes two weeks, which means it would have to be done while still competent enough to carry out a plan that takes two weeks. It won’t work if you forget what you are doing. That means it would probably have to be done a year or so before I would really want to. That is a terrible plan!”

If anybody has a better plan, David would certainly like to hear it! “Another problem with VSED,” he adds, “is that it is tricky if you are not yet terminal because you can get in trouble if the wrong people get wind of it. I know of cases where rational elderly people who were badly suffering were involuntarily committed because wanting to end their life was considered by itself to be proof of mental illness. I do know of a case where a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s successfully concluded VSED, but it was not in a cryonics setting and I am unsure how well it could be adapted.”

This is a particularly vexing issue for David, who laments that “we do not live in a free country if the law forces you to slowly turn into a drooling vegetable rather than be voluntarily cryopreserved before that happens.”

Website: elverhoj.org

David comes from an artistic family: his father was a sculptor, his mother an artist, and his elder sister switched from science to playing the harpsichord. “The artistic genes seem to have skipped me. The only thing I can do is draw flies and play the stereo, but at least I do the latter quite well. I have no idea where the space genes came from.”

David’s mother was an artist who made this portrait of him when he was a young child.

David grew up in the small Danish town of Solvang, California, where his father had built a Danish-style house called Elverhoy (“hill of the elves”)—building it by himself on a shoestring budget over a period of four years. “The house was filled with my parents’ art work: a statue of a rearing horse in the front courtyard, an intricately carved redwood front door, and a lot of carvings, paintings and sculptures in the interior.” After his parents passed away the house was turned into a museum, taking on the Danish spelling as Elverhøj Museum. David has been the volunteer webmaster of the museum’s website for many years: “Maintaining this website gives me a sense of connection with my parents and the town in which I grew up.”

The home where David grew up in Solvang, California, is now a museum.

From his past artistic surroundings, David’s own future was shaped in large part by his interest in the future of humanity. He signed up with Alcor because he wants a chance to see and participate in the creation of a civilization in space, something he otherwise would not be able to do. And quite frankly, as he humorously puts it, he would “simply prefer sticking around rather than not sticking around!” He astutely reframes the field, noting that “Cryonics is really a modern technical form of Pascal’s Wager, but a form of the wager that I’m willing to take. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be out the cost of the life insurance but won’t care, and meanwhile I have enjoyed the intelligent company of other Alcor members.”

“In the words of H. G. Wells,” summarizes David, “The Universe or nothing, which shall it be?”


More Alcor Member Profiles